March 25, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Big Skates to Fill

NCAA Loss Forces Maine to Confront Big Losses

by Michael King/CHN Writer

WORCESTER, Mass. — Returning Hockey East Player of the Year Spencer Abbott from injury, Maine appeared poised to restore the form that yielded victories in 10 of its final 13 regular season games. Without the 62-point scorer in last weekend's Hockey East final, the Black Bears struggled to generate consistent offense.

With a power-play goal late in the first period Saturday night against Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament from their star senior, the Black Bears looked to be well on their way to a rematch with Boston College in the Northeast Regional final.

However, that path was quickly blocked through the next two periods, as Maine allowed five straight goals — resulting in a 5-2 loss at the DCU Center.

"We're disappointed not to advance, and we felt we started very strong," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "There was no quit in this team at all, but we couldn't get the equalizer before Duluth pulled away."

Having been tantalizingly close to its first Hockey East title since 2004 and first NCAA regional final since 2007, Maine now must focus on replacing two-thirds of arguably the best line in college hockey, as well as one of the better two-way defensemen.

These seniors — forwards Abbott and Brian Flynn and defenseman Will O'Neill — registered 143 total points this year and played major minutes in all situations.

Recreating Maine's dominance on both ends of the ice will fall on the team's now-experienced underclassmen.

Offensively, top returning players like forwards Diamond and Matt Mangene will need to increase their output in order to begin replacing the production graduated.

However, the departing leaders believe their teammates have the ability to continue Maine's run of success.

"We have a lot of very skilled guys returning who will be able to keep things going," Flynn said. "There's a great core of players here who will do a great job for us next year. There are a lot of guys who didn't get as many minutes because of our top line this year."

The adjustment, however, will be significant. Having become accustomed to the top line receiving the attention of opponents' best defensive pairings and most aware defensive forwards, Mangene (34 points) and Adam Shemansky (21 points) will need to prove they can still produce against the league's best.

But much of the pressure will lie on the shoulders of Diamond — the grittiest player of Maine's dynamic trio. He sustains effort around the net to put himself in position to finish his teammate's chances.

The junior is highly adept at finishing scoring chances, but he cannot be a line's — or a team's — primary offensive creator. This player's best results are accomplished when he's permitted to use his physical nature and acumen for positioning around the net.

"I think I have to continue playing my same style and stay consistent and see what happens," Diamond said at the prospect of playing without gifted linemates Abbott and Flynn. "They are two great players who will probably go on to have long pro careers."

Beyond the on-ice production, Diamond will be one of the players whom Whitehead will look toward as one of the leaders of his team next season.

"It would really be an honor to be a leader for this program," Diamond added. "Brian and the other seniors have been tremendous leaders ever since I stepped on campus."

In addition, the Black Bears must reform their power play. No team is more reliant on scoring with the man advantage than Maine. With the nation's second-ranked rate of conversion (26.9) and most goals, power play success drove this team through much of the season.

The three seniors worked exceptionally well together in this capacity. Most of the power-play goals the team scored this year involved a series of crafty passes among the trio and Diamond. It remains to be seen if a new combination of players can replicate that same fluidity.

Yet in those seniors, the current group of Black Bear underclassmen have excellent models of leadership.

"We will take this experience and everything we learned from our seniors into next year," junior forward Kyle Beattie said of his team's leaders.

A proper comparison for this team is likely the Black Bears' biggest rivals: New Hampshire. In 2010-11, the Wildcats rode the offensive production of a dominant top line to a strong season in conference and a near Frozen Four berth. Just like the Black Bears, that UNH team included the Hockey East Player of the Year (Paul Thompson) among its talented seniors. Again, it was driven by a high-scoring top-line (Thompson, Mike Sislo and Phil DeSimone) and a versatile defenseman (Blake Kessel).

That Wildcat team suffered through one of the few losing seasons in Durham in recent memory this year. This type of season could be what Maine experiences in 2012-13.

And, with the reality of playing in a league as competitive as Hockey East, the Black Bears could still make significant strides toward replacing their best players and not make the conference playoffs.

However, the Black Bears have been in this position before. Last season, in fact, a less successful team was tasked with replacing a group of similarly productive players.

That squad included forward Gustav Nyquist, who scored 51 points.

The current underclassmen are confident that they can leverage this prior experience and overcome the loss of this production.

"We were in the same position last year, losing a key group of seniors and other guys," sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan said. "But we developed on our experience and became a good hockey team."

But Diamond credits the departing group of seniors as the ones who helped the team evolve and overcome such losses from 2010-11.

"Our seniors this year really helped to bring Maine hockey back," he said. "And we're going to try to continue that tradition and get to the NCAA tournament again next year."

But, until then, Maine fans are left to contemplate another season without a championship or place among the nation's elite in the Frozen Four.

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